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Why Jiu-Jitsu? (Part 1: Self-Defense Perspective)

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Why Jiu-Jitsu? (Part 1: Self-Defense Perspective)

Why Jiu-Jitsu?

(Part 1: Self-Defense Perspective)

By Ted Chittenden 1/27/2022


I have practiced martial arts for most of my life. I have studied various types of martial arts over the decades, and one question I often receive is why Jiu-Jitsu? The short answer is because it works. However, the term “works” can be a bit more complex and it extends far beyond human combat.


Part 1: Self-defense perspectives.


From a combative/self-defense perspective, I am more inclined to favor arts that have more emphasis on grappling versus striking, especially regarding self-defense. Those that know me, might think this to be hypocritical on my part; questions such as don’t you have Dan (black belt) ranks in several martial arts, weren’t you a competitive kickboxer, don’t you teach kickboxing at your academy? The answer to all those questions is yes. This is where things become more revealing and start to ruffle people’s feathers. This starts with the difference between a sport and a fight.

In my lifetime I have had kickboxing matches, full-contact karate matches, San-Da matches, wrestling matches, submission grappling matches, Jiu-Jitsu matches, Judo matches, even some Pankration and MMA matches. With no question, I loved to compete in combat sports. The thing to consider is they are all sports. Each of them had specific rules, weight classes, time limits, safety precautions, and a referee. Within all those sports the goal was to win. Self-defense is different.


In the self-defense scenario, the goal is to survive and hopefully escape unharmed. Like the original UFC, there are no rules, there are no points (although in fact there were a few rules in the original UFCs, save that for another time). The lack of regulation brings up the crux of the difference. Your aggressor (notice I didn’t say opponent) is not hindered by any of the things that keep athletes safe in combat sports. Your aggressor wants to tip the scale to their advantage in any way possible because their goal is ultimately to injure you, rob you, rape you, dominate you, embarrass you, or all the aforementioned.


The predator/ attacker.


Our attacker has assumed a predatory position to achieve their goal (we will discuss in more detail the psychology of a predator in later parts). In the animal kingdom, the lions do not attack the strongest zebra in the herd. They attack the slowest, the weakest, the sick. This is the predator's best means to achieve success; in the case of the lion, to kill its prey and eat for the day. The human-animal often is not too different. The human predator seeks the weakest victim they can find, to ensure their success inflicting violence to achieve their ends. The schoolyard bully doesn’t generally pick on the toughest kid, the rapist doesn’t seek the strongest victim (we will discuss the more sinister dangers of date rape in later parts), the mugger doesn’t typically attack someone larger than they are. The human predator seeks whom they presume to be the weakest prey.


Grappling over striking.


Given the attacker wants to seek the advantage, it is likely they will be bigger and stronger than we are. Often in the Jiu-Jitsu world, you will hear people say, “size and strength do not matter”. Unfortunately, when all things are equal this is not true, the bigger and stronger will win. That is where martial training comes in, it is a means to make things not equal; to set the conditions of trained versus untrained. It is a means to tip the scale in favor of the defender. This is one of the reasons many people start to study martial arts in the first place. With the training, it now becomes a matter of effectiveness and efficiency.

Let’s look at this scenario. You have a 120lb defender, being assaulted by a 250lb attacker. Let’s assume the 120lb defender is trained in primarily striking methods. For the defender to survive and escape, he/she must be able to control the distance and space, find an exit route, and because of sheer physics try not to get hit. The defender must stay rooted to the ground to generate power in their strikes.

Here is the problem; if any of those elements are diminished the likelihood of their success is also diminished. If the defender is knocked to the ground, they have a problem, because the power of their strikes becomes severely limited. If they are cornered, they have a problem; then they must stay on their feet and bludgeon their way out, without absorbing more damage than the attacker. If they are grabbed or clinched, they have a problem; they must be able to throw strikes at a close range, without sustaining damage, falling to the ground, or being struck. Additionally, if the smaller defender strikes the larger attacker, it might cause the attacker to withdraw, but there is a high likelihood it will escalate the situation and the level of violence from the attacker will increase.

In the movies, we see the hero knocking out the villains with singular punches and kicks. However, anyone who has ever stepped into the ring knows that the concept of a singular strike knockout at the beginning of a conflict is an anomaly, the human body can take an abundance of striking before it shuts down most of the time. All my kickboxing matches went the distance with my opponent and I banging away at each other for the duration of the bout, which is more common than not.  So, unless you are Chuck Norris, don’t count on that one punch/kick knockout.  Maybe you will get lucky, but……… There are also legal ramifications. Let’s say you are such an astute striker that you can do all the things we discussed.  Your success will likely end in your attacker being beaten to a pulp; at what point does self-defense become an assault? How likely will you win the civil suit when pictures of a bloody and beaten person are shown in court? How likely will the school expel the defender child? Just something to think about. Although I am not saying you cannot be successful in striking your way out of a situation (effectiveness), I am suggesting that it might not be the best option (efficiency).   


Enter the grappling martial arts. Grappling martial arts are more focused on control, some more than others, but control of the other person nonetheless. Emphasis on escaping the control of the other person is at the forefront. In our attack scenario, it is safe to assume that the attacker is going to be in our personal space and attempt to control us. If we are skilled at escaping grabs and holds, our chance to get away increase. If we can isolate and control the attacker it will help to limit the amount of damage, we sustain during the conflict.

At the macro level, the concept seems to be a better alternative than striking, but challenges arise at the micro level. For example, all grappling arts are not the same.  Some do not give as many options for the escalation of force. Some are predicated on taking the opponent to the ground and going to the ground with them.  In a one-on-one situation, maybe it is advantageous going to the ground, but we do not know if the attacker has a friend nearby. The physical terrain is a factor.  Grappling on a mat is not the same as a concrete parking lot. Many of the things we do on a mat, will cause us significant “road rash” if we do them on the ground. Many grappling arts are measured by the person on top being the dominant one, but what if we are on the bottom? Some grappling arts are very predicated on strength to facilitate techniques, what if we are smaller? Although the grappling approach does seem to be a better solution, there are still some flaws.  


So why Jiu-Jitsu

            Jiu-Jitsu, when done right, focuses on all the control methodology that most grappling arts have. The difference become with the exceptional amount of emphasis on body mechanics and human physics. It teaches us to use angles and frames versus total reliance on speed and strength. It is nested with submissions, which gives us the answer to the escalation of violence and gives us options to “win” from the bottom. The Jiu-Jitsu that we teach exercises dealing with strikes both standing and on the ground. We place a great deal of emphasis on fundamental mechanics (notice I did not say basics). The approach we take with our Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has been the most complete, effective, and efficient methodology to self-defense I have ever seen. Although we do spend a great deal of time on the ground, the root of our Jiu-Jitsu is standing.

            Just as all grappling is not the same, all Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is not the same. Much like Judo (Judo is one of my passions for decades), BJJ as it has grown in popularity has had the growing pains of sport versus fighting art. The sport and competitive aspects of Jiu-Jitsu have made it one of the most popular arts around. Add to that as the popularity of the UFC has grown, public exposure to Jiu-Jitsu has also grown when people see its application on TV all the time. In my area, I bet there are 25 Jiu-Jitsu schools within a 50-mile radius. What makes us different from each other? One of the biggest things that separate us is the emphasis on self-defense versus competition. Many schools in our area only teach a sports style of Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu as a sport is awesome, I competed myself for decades and loved every minute of it. Let’s not forget, that as a sport there are rules, referees, etc., and the goal is to win. In self-defense, the goal is to survive uninjured. As a sport grows and evolves, techniques and strategies grow within the limits of the rules, and as we master them our competitive success grows. However, many of the winningest techniques and strategies designed to win championships are designed in the confines of the ruleset. As such, many of the techniques would not be the most preferable options in an actual fight for your life. In a Jiu-Jitsu match, you can not hit me in the face, so that is a significant factor that I would not have to prepare for.  That is not to suggest that many of the sport's techniques wouldn’t work in a real fight (effective), but you might sustain some damage in the process (efficiency). Some would argue that if you’re not including self-defense, you’re not doing Jiu-Jitsu. We will debate that later, for now, we will just leave it as an academy’s own priority.  I will say that from a self-defense perspective, really take a hard look at the effective versus efficient ratio of what you are doing. Is your only option to strike? How different would this be on concrete? What if they could punch me in the face? There are a million reasons to practice Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts (we will talk about this later too), most of which have nothing to do with fighting; and truthfully, I think that is one of the most beautiful things about the study of martial arts in any form. If one of your main reasons is for self-defense, really consider the questions we presented and ask yourself, how effective and how efficient would this be, especially if I am at a physical disadvantage? The answer to that question will illuminate if you are training at the right place.


I know we noted in several cases, that we will “discuss that later”, and we will address them all in subsequent posts in this series of “Why Jiu-Jitsu”.


Check back for part 2: More Reasons to train Jiu-Jitsu that don’t have anything to do with fighting

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